San Francisco Ballet – Night, L’Arlesienne, Symphony in Three Movements

Last year, San Francisco Ballet’s Artistic Director, Helgi Tomasson, dedicated one program of the repertory season to new works by young choreographers. A number of the company’s dancers rose to the occasion so that the program had to be expanded to two. One of the popular successes from those new works, Night, was brought back this year as the opening work of Program 6. It was choreographed by SFB principal dancer Julia Adam, who joined the company in 1988 and has risen through the ranks achieving principal dancer status in 1996. The music was composed by Matthew Pierce, brother of SFB principal dancer Benjamin Pierce, who designed the costumes and projections for Night and danced a leading role in the piece.

Night worked its charms again this year, eliciting cheers and enthusiastic applause from the audience. There is a dream-like quality to this dance, which begins with an opening tableau of a woman asleep on what might be a bed (the backs of four prone dancers). Tall Benjamin Pierce begins to move, stretching and bending, and then engages the woman (petite Tina LeBlanc) in a pas de deux. Their difference in size makes an obvious contrast. She is dressed in a nightie, he is in a leotard embellished with organza strips sewn on so that they stick out–from a distance they look like pillow feathers.

A group of three women, encased in a stretch fabric that surrounds them like a cocoon and makes them perform as a single entity, appear and dance their way downstage, eventually shedding the cocoon. Then the "bed" comes to life, as each of the four men who was part of the bed starts to undulate like the caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland. The costumes for both men and women are like the one worn by Pierce, so that LeBlanc is the solitary figure dressed in "real" clothes, reinforcing the impression that everything taking place is her dream.

LeBlanc is a fiery dancer, fleet and precise, and she engaged the audience in her dream world. The sweet, gentle music and the geniality of Adam’s movement and stage pictures, contributed to the enjoyment.

The second work on the program was Roland Petit’s L’Arlesienne, a company premiere. A short story by Alphonse Daudet was the inspiration for this ballet, which is about a man who is going to marry a woman he does not love. He is obsessed by a phantom woman, never seen. The marriage happens, the bride is unable to get an emotional response from her new husband, and he goes mad at the end, killing himself by leaping through a window.

Petit uses Bizet’s popular L’Arlesienne Suite No. 2 as the music. The stage has a painted backdrop of a vista to distant mountains with a large sun in the sky, all rendered in the Van Gogh style. There is a corps of eight men and eight women, all dressed in typical peasant costume of the Arles region–men in black with a red sash around the waist, women in black dresses with a white shawl collar and an accompanying black shawl. The corps moves in rigid formation, conveying the sense of a closed and restricting society. Their patterns are usually linear, the men in one line, the women in another, sometimes the two coming together so that man alternates with woman. The steps are tightly controlled, with quirky embellishments: fast, march-like steps in place, unexpected movements to the side and many fluttering hand gestures. The corps serves as a frame for the two principals, the bride and groom.

The bride’s part was danced by the exquisite Lucia Lacarra, whose beautiful legs and feet draw your eye as much as does her dramatic stage presence. Her high leg extension shows off her shapely line–from her hip the leg curves gently, ending in the high arch of her instep so that the foot becomes an exclamation point at the end of a line. She portrayed the bride’s confusion and anguish over her unresponsive groom with elegant nuance of emotion. As her groom, Pierre-Fran´┐Żois Vilanoba did not react to those around him–he was clearly obsessed with his unseen love. He remained impassive to his bride’s attempts at seduction, at one point falling to the floor in a fetal position ignoring her advances. At the end, when he is alone on stage and the painted backdrop is lifted to reveal a large, open window, his dancing conveyed the confusion that would lead to dementia. He begins to circle the stage and suddenly takes a flying leap through the window, bringing the ballet to a dramatic conclusion.

The final work in the program was George Balanchine’s Symphony in Three Movements, an invigorating ballet set to the eponymous score by Igor Stravinsky. When the curtain rose to reveal a long, diagonal line of women in white leotards set against a bright blue sky, the audience applauded spontaneously. By coincidence, the same diagonal arrangement of corps women had occurred in L’Arlesienne, but to vastly different effect. The excitement generated by the opening tableau seemed to inspire the dancers, as they attacked the work with an infectious vitality.

The score dates from 1942-45 and is one of Stravinsky’s neo-classical compositions that is readily assimilable. Much of the music presages what he would write in his opera The Rake’s Progress, an avowed homage to Mozart. Balanchine choreographed the work for his Stravinsky Festival that represented a burst of creativity after some fallow years. His muse, Suzanne Farrell, had left him and the works he created in 1969-71 did not have the inspiration readily apparent in many of the works from that festival that was presented in June of 1972.

This is a large ballet calling for a big cast, 32 dancers in all. Balanchine’s mastery of moving bodies around stage is demonstrated throughout. Three pairs of soloists (the women are in different shades of pink, contrasting with the white of the corps women and the black of the demi-soloists) intersect with the large female corps (16 dancers) and the five demi-soloist couples, often in rapidly changing patterns. The dance reflects the restless energy of the score, especially in the first movement where Balanchine uses ordinary walking movements punctuated by pumping arms and clenched fists. Soloists Julia Adam and Roman Rykine brought a sharp edge to their dancing in this movement.

SFB dances Balanchine beautifully–in fact it often demonstrates more precision of design than New York City Ballet without sacrificing speed and energy. Julie Diana and Yuri Possokhov danced the central pas de deux, which is a welcome contrast to the two outer movements. She is cool, he is passionate–it was an effective pairing. Their flowing arm gestures expressed the slower, legato (linked or flowing) nature of this part of the ballet, which led seamlessly into the final movement for the entire cast and brought the evening to a swift, exciting conclusion.

– Larry Campbell

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